Monday, September 9, 2013

Elevate the Debate

It hasn't exactly been an inspiring week for democratic discourse.

When President Obama decided to submit to Congress the question of military action against Syria, I wrote that he was doing the right thing in showing respect for process. I still believe that. But I also said that it was now up to Congress to "have a dignified and intelligent debate." So far, not so much.

There have been more lowlights than highlights. We've been treated to Rep. Jeff Duncan, Republican of South Carolina, embarrassing himself by launching an ad hominem attack on Secretary of State John Kerry in the guise of a question: “Is the power of the executive branch so intoxicating," Duncan said, "that you would abandon past caution in favor for pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly?”

This is not a statesman making an argument. This is a hack trying to score cheap political points.

Sen. John McCain, who has long supported miltiary intervention in Syria, makes the "credibility" argument. “If the Congress were to reject a resolution like this, after the president of the United States has already committed to action, the consequences would be catastrophic, in that the credibility of this country with friends and adversaries alike would be shredded,” McCain said.

The "credibility" case is perhaps the worst possible argument for military intervention. It amounts to saying that is better to do something stupid than take a chance that you might be seen as fickle or weak by deciding not to do the stupid thing you said you would do. If military strikes against Syria make sense as policy, proponents need to make that case, and not hide behind the absurd "credibility" argument that helped drag the United States into Vietnam.

Congressional Democrats have been no better.

Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who seems to want to vote yes in order to support a Democratic president, explained that over 90% of his constituents are against military action against Syria, and cited an exchange with a nurse, who opposes strikes:

"So I said, 'Do you understand there's chemical weapons?' She said, 'Folks have been using chemical weapons for a long time.'"

The problem is that the nurse is factually wrong. Since their widespread use in World War I and subsequent banning in 1925, such weapons have in fact rarely been used. Cummings either did not know that, or did not bother to correct her. Leadership sometimes means telling the people when they are wrong.

The whole idea behind a punitive military response against Syria is to reassert the idea that using such weapons is beyond the pale and insure that it does not now become commonplace. A member of Congress about to vote on the proposal should know that, and has no obligation to be swayed by the uninformed opinions of constituents.

Explaining why he was leaning against supporting military strikes against Syria, Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, Democrat of New York said: “I wasn’t elected just to go along to get along. I was elected to utilize my thought process and to determine what I think is in the best interest of my district.”

No, Rep. Meeks. When it comes to foreign policy, your job is not to think about "the best interest of my district." A congressional district does not have national security interests; the United States does. In these cases, you think as an American, not as the reflexive servant of your constituents. Meeks was trying to paint his fear of opposing constituent wishes as the political courage to be independent of the president, but instead makes himself look like a politician about to cravenly submit to the voters, rather than deciding what he thinks is right.

If members of Congress think the president is wrong, they should explain why, and not hide behind platitudes about constituent wishes or political independence. If they think he is right, they ought not to use "credibility" to avoid explaining exactly what American interests are at stake.

Perhaps in these hyper-partisan times, an elevated debate was too much to hope for. Rep. Tim Murphy, Republican of Pennsylvania, admitted that his constituents openly say that they oppose action against Syria simply because Obama is asking for it: “Generally, the calls are like this: ‘I can’t stand President Obama; don’t you dare go along with him,’” he said.

I've spent the last several years researching the American debate over involvement in World War II, so I inevitably tend to see this debate through that lens. That debate also had its low points, with demagoguery on both sides often drowning out more reasoned discourse. Some people no doubt opposed FDR's proposals simply because they came from "that man."

Nonetheless, there was a substantive debate over American policy, one that went on for 27 months. In those specific historical circumstances, the United States had the luxury of time. Since then--in part due to the difficulties FDR had in moving Congress toward intervention--presidents have often eschewed Congressional debates before taking action, citing the need for quick action. (It is likely also that they feared getting bogged down in precisely the kind of self-interested and often partisan Congressional posturing we've just seen).

Sadly, the last week shows why those previous presidents acted the way they did. If Congress wants to reassert its role in making foreign and military policy, if it wants to show that those previous presidents were wrong to act without Congress and that future presidents should follow Obama's example, today's Representatives and Senators need to elevate the debate to a level commensurate with the stakes. If they fail, they may squander their last best chance to show that the legislative branch can be a responsible partner in the making of American national security policy.

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